'Out of Step': Investigation Uncovers Striking Paid Leave Divide in US

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'Out of Step': Investigation Uncovers Striking Paid Leave Divide in US

In post-recession US, nearly a quarter of women surveyed went back to work within two weeks after giving birth

In the United States, only about 13 percent of U.S. workers have access to any form of paid family leave. (Photo: Corrinne Yu/cc/flickr)

In the United States, only about 13 percent of U.S. workers have access to any form of paid family leave. (Photo: Corrinne Yu/cc/flickr)

With the idea of paid maternity leave gaining traction as a means of recruiting workplace "talent" or used as a talking point on the campaign trail, an In These Times investigation published on Tuesday reveals the sad reality for millions of U.S. families. 

In the United States, only about 13 percent of U.S. workers have access to any form of paid family leave, which includes parental leave and other time off to care for a family member, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"[M]ost Americans don’t realize quite how out of step we are," writes journalist Sharon Lerner for ITT. "With the exception of a few small countries like Papua New Guinea and Suriname, every other nation in the world—rich or poor—now requires paid maternity leave."

For those who are able take time off after a child's birth, particularly those who are paid during that time, the benefits are many: healthier babies, more opportunities to bond, lower rates of family poverty, and decreased chances of infant death. Further, women whose workplaces support their leave typically have more work opportunities and greater lifetime earnings.

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According to Lerner's research, the number of women forced to choose between bonding with their newborns and being able to provide for them financially has skyrocketed since the recession, which "left many women living on razorthin margins, ratcheting up the pressure to rush back to work after giving birth."

"Without adequate options or support, low-income workers, who are more likely to live paycheck to paycheck and less likely to have access to any type of leave, often have little choice but to power through."

Between 2005 and 2007, more than half of first-time mothers who worked during their pregnancy were back on the job within three months of giving birth, according to U.S. Census data. Bereft of updated statistics, Lerner wanted to know how new mothers "are faring in today’s age of austerity." Her answer: Not well.

She writes:

Data analyzed for In These Times by Abt Associates, a research and evaluation company, provides a window into these experiences. Abt went back to a 2012 survey it conducted for the Department of Labor of 2,852 employees who had taken family or medical leave in the last year, looking specifically at the 93 women who took time off work to care for a new baby.

Nearly 12 percent of those women took off only a week or less. Another 11 percent took between one and two weeks off. That means that about 23 percent—nearly 1 in 4—of the women interviewed were back at work within two weeks of having a child.

 Moreover, Lerner notes a "striking" educational divide in which "80 percent of college graduates took at least six weeks off to care for a new baby, but only 54 percent of women without college degrees did so."

"Without adequate options or support, low-income workers, who are more likely to live paycheck to paycheck and less likely to have access to any type of leave, often have little choice but to power through," Lerner continues. "As our data confirm—and as finances dictate—less educated women, who tend to have lower-paying jobs, are likely to take less time off after having children. Often, that means not just going back to work early, but going back to very long work hours, very early."

In keeping with this trend is the recent announcement that Netflix would be offering paid time off for the first year after a child's birth or adoption to individuals deemed highly-coveted "talent," while more expendable employees are not provided with these perks, as Robert Reich noted in a column Tuesday.

As Lerner notes, this issue is gaining some traction, including the reintroduction in May of the Family Medical Insurance Leave Act. However, the issue may not be decided until after the 2016 presidential election.

While most Republican candidates have been mum on the issue, at best, Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both come out as strong proponents of paid leave. Accordingly, Lerner writes, these politicians are "making a moral case to which there is no politically sound retort: Families need paid time off to take care of their new babies. Men, women and children will gain from this basic human dignity."

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